Hyper-Literalism, Could vs. Should, and a Guiding Question (JDR-2)

Before I begin discussing Jesus’ words on divorce and remarriage, I want to clarify a few things about my approach. In this post I’ll make two points about interpreting the Bible on the topic of divorce and remarriage:

  • First, I’ll discuss the futility of taking a hyper-literal approach.
  • Second, I’ll propose one point of confusion in Bible interpretation that divides “liberal” and “conservative” camps.[1]

Finally, I’ll use this second point to introduce the question that will guide me as I examine Jesus’ words in forthcoming posts.

Hyper-Literal Bible Interpretation

I want to begin by emphasizing, as strongly as possible, something that I think is utterly essential to acknowledge: Understanding the NT teaching on divorce and remarriage is not as simple as just taking the words of Jesus and Paul at face value. In fact, if one takes a hyper-literal approach to all the NT teachings on divorce—taking them all as universally-true statements, without any exception—then one ends up with multiple contradictions.

Here are just three examples:

  • Jesus said, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 19:6). On face value, in the minds of most readers, this leaves no room for divorce, period. But Jesus also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matt. 19:9). Debates of theologians aside, most people reading that for the first time would conclude that divorce is permitted for a husband whose wife has been sexually unfaithful. Which is true?
  • Matthew 19:9 includes the exception noted above. But Mark 10:11, which records the same historical event as Matthew, has Jesus condemning divorce without exception: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.” Full stop. So, did Jesus give an exception or didn’t he?
  • Paul wrote, “If any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her” (1 Cor. 7:12). Wait a minute: What does Paul mean by “if…she consents to live with him”? Doesn’t that condition contradict Jesus’ unqualified prohibitions of divorce?

The debate over whether the NT ever permits remarriage, then, cannot be reduced to a debate between those who, in simple faith, take the Bible’s teachings at face value and those who, with hardened hearts, try to weasel around its clear teaching. (Simple faith and hard hearts, of course, do play important roles.) Rather, I suggest, it is more foundationally a debate over which of the Bible’s statements about divorce have the best claim to be taken at face value, without qualification—the prohibitions (almost always general statements[2]) or the exceptions (always directed to specific circumstances).

Again, no one takes all the NT divorce teachings at face value, as being universally true without qualification. It is impossible to do so. And because it is impossible, God clearly did not intend for us to do so. We are misunderstanding him, somewhere, if we try to do so.

With those facts clearly before us, we should free each other for an honest, humble discussion about how best to synthesize the Bible’s varied teachings on divorce.

Should Versus Could

How do Christians end up with such different perspectives on divorce and remarriage? One reason, of course, is that they disagree about which texts should control our reading of other texts. (See above.)

Another underlying cause for disagreement between “liberal” and “conservative” camps, it seems to me, is that one emphasizes the “could” of Scripture while the other emphasizes the “should.” The only way to read Scripture well, however, is to appropriately acknowledge both. Let me explain.

A “liberal” approach to divorce and remarriage emphasizes the passages of Scripture that say a marriage could be ended, whether rightly or wrongly. Since it is clear that marriage is not necessarily permanent, it must not be necessary to try to make it permanent, right? (Wrong.) This approach sometimes cites the divorce exceptions of Jesus and Paul (Matt. 19:9; 1 Cor. 7:15), but, in truth, finding specific biblical grounds for divorce is no longer very important. What really matters is just the basic fact that a marriage could come to an end. Such endings may be unfortunate, but they are to be expected and we should just try to navigate them with as much grace as possible, moving on to better relationships when old ones fade.

A ”conservative” approach, in contrast, emphasizes those Scriptures that say a marriage should never be ended by anything besides death. Since it is clearly necessary for marriage to be permanent, marriage must necessarily be permanent, right? (Wrong.) This approach acknowledges that some Scriptures seem to talk about marriages ending, but it quickly overrides all such texts with other passages that seem to indicate that even when a marriage is formally ended by divorce, obligations remain. These passages mentioning obligations are then universalized to apply to all divorce situations, no matter what exceptions may appear in a face-value reading of other Scriptures. Thus, any remarriage is always an “adulterous marriage,” or perhaps should not be called a marriage at all.

Neither approach, it seems to me, reads Scripture fairly.

To be honest, I’ve never been seriously tempted by the “liberal” approach. It shows utter disregard for God’s word and for basic human fidelity, despite the apparently loving motives of some who promote it.

The “conservative” approach, however, is more or less what I grew up with. (Please be patient with my simplistic summaries.) Because I this is the approach I have been taught for most of  my life, it is the position I will test in my forthcoming posts.

Did Jesus Teach That Marriage Is Indissoluble?

The basic question I’ll consider in my posts is this: Did Jesus believe that nothing besides death can truly end a marriage? Did he believe that marriage is indissoluble?

I’ll begin with the NT’s fullest account of Jesus’ teaching on the subject, found in Matthew 19. I’ll start by examining several of his “should statements” about the permanence of marriage, statements that are sometimes misinterpreted, it seems to me, as proof that a marriage could never be fully broken. After discussing key excerpts from Matthew 19, I’ll aim to synthesize Jesus’ other teachings, too. Throughout, I will focus on my basic question: Did Jesus believe marriage is indissoluble?

This series, then, will not try to address the rights and wrongs of every imaginable potential divorce situation. Rather, I’m testing a more foundational point. If Jesus really did believe a validly-contracted marriage cannot be dissolved by anything but death, then the “conservative” approach is fundamentally correct and all apparent exceptions must be read as not truly being exceptions after all.

But if we discover that Jesus never actually said anything that indicates he thought marriage is indissoluble, then this shapes how we must read what he did say. It means we have no reason to preclude, with the “conservative” approach, that Jesus’ exceptions cannot be taken at face value.

This series, then, is more about testing a key assumption many readers bring to Jesus’ words than it is about expounding the full meaning and significance of Jesus’ divorce teachings as might be done in a sermon. It is about testing the starting point of our thinking rather than trying to give a lot of practical guidance or application of Scripture to human life. That said, what I plan to share is anything but just theoretical. Answering the question Did Jesus believe marriage is indissoluble? is just about the most relevant thing I can imagine for anyone who is dealing with a marriage that is currently on the rocks.

Before we begin digging into this question, however, I want to emphasize as strongly as I can that Jesus’ main message about marriage was persistent and clear: God intends marriage to be for life, and any time a marriage union is separated, that marriage has fallen short of God’s creation design. Period. This was the heartbeat of Jesus’ teaching on divorce, and it must be the heartbeat of the church’s teaching, too, when taken as a whole.

My inquiry does not question this divine purpose at all. Rather, it focuses on what happens when humans fail to live up to it. Is it possible for humans to separate what God has joined? And is it possible for one marriage to end, other than by death, in such a way that remarriage may be an option that God blesses?

In short, my posts will address the question of what could happen to a marriage if it falls short of what God’s word clearly shows should happen.

I have one more post to share before I dig into Jesus’ words. In my next post I’ll summarize the general perspective on marriage permanence that I have reached after my study on this topic over the past couple of years. I call this perspective “radical faithfulness,” and I’ll contrast it with the positions I’ve called “liberal” and “conservative” in this post.

Meanwhile, I’d like to hear from you.

What are your thoughts on a hyper-literal approach to the NT teachings on divorce and remarriage? Have you observed confusion between the “should” and “could” of Scripture on this topic? What parts of Jesus’ teaching on the topic do you hope I dig into as I investigate Jesus’ view on marriage permanence?

Thanks for reading!

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[1] I’m using scare quotes because I’m not attempting to precisely define, identify, or affirm either group. In my usage here, “liberal” simply means more permissive of divorce and “conservative” less permissive. Readers will have differing opinions on which position, if either, best conserves biblical doctrine and God’s liberal grace.

[2] I say “almost” because the prohibition in 1 Corinthians 7:11 is tied to a specific circumstance.

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